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Innocent man haunted by decades in prison

Wilton Dedge hits the brakes every time he sees a patrol car, even if he’s driving under the speed limit. He keeps boxes of receipts from gas stations, stores and fast-food places — just in case he might have to prove where he was.

And he rarely goes anywhere alone.

Nearly two years after being freed from prison, the man who served 22 years for a rape he didn’t commit is terrified of being sent back.

“I still get nervous around police,” said Dedge, 44.

Twenty-four years ago, he was a high-school dropout who loved to surf and party when a Brevard County sheriff’s agent came looking for him at his parents’ home in Port St. John. He ended up being convicted twice and sentenced to life because a 17-year-old girl said he attacked her Dec. 8, 1981, and he couldn’t prove he was somewhere else.

Dedge was finally released in August 2004 after DNA testing confirmed his innocence. But nearly two years later, he remains scarred by all those years in jail as an innocent man.

He hasn’t made many close friends. He’s not sure who can be trusted.

He does have a girlfriend, and he moved into her home not long after his release. The woman, who declined to be interviewed and asked that her name not be used, has helped him adjust, Dedge said.

But he still feels like an outsider.

“When people start talking about the past, what all they did together, I feel kind of lost,” he said. “They have a past together, and I don’t.”

In some ways, Dedge said, he feels as though he’s still in his 20s. His once close-cropped blonde hair is now past his shoulders, the way he wore it before he was locked up.

But in other ways, he feels like an old man who has missed too much to start over.

He thinks it’s too late to have children.

“I don’t want to be 60 and not be able to play sports with my kids,” he said.

Dedge’s parents, who spent their life savings defending him, now are struggling to help him emotionally. After waiting years for her son’s freedom, Mary Dedge said she rarely sees him.

“The psychologist said that since we were the ones who always came to see him in prison that maybe when he sees us, he thinks of prison,” she said, adding that he gets upset at the mention of his time behind bars.

“Basically,” Dedge said, “I’m just trying to put it all behind me.”

Last year, he was awarded $2 million by state legislators to compensate for the lost years. He received $150,000 in December, and the rest bought an annuity that pays him in monthly installments over 20 years.

So far, he has purchased a 2006 Dodge Charger, an old 17-foot fishing boat and a used truck. He invested some of the money and is giving his parents 20 percent. But he still lives in the same modest house that he moved into after his release; he still mows lawns for a living — and he still would like to hear from the people who put him in jail and kept him there.

When state lawmakers passed the bill compensating Dedge, some of them also told him they were sorry. He would like to hear that from the victim whose misidentification ruined his life and from the prosecutors who blocked the DNA testing that could have freed him three years earlier.

“She has no reason to be scared of me, but I think she owes me at least a few minutes,” Dedge said of the victim, now 42, who was repeatedly raped and slashed with a box cutter inside her mobile home near Sharpes.

“I honestly believe she had some doubts but was pushed into it.”

Brevard prosecutors said the woman, who has never commented publicly about the case, was devastated when she learned she had accused the wrong man. The real rapist has never been caught.

“If I did somebody wrong, I would want to tell them I didn’t do it intentionally,” Dedge said.

He still is angry at prosecutors who pointed at him in court and called him a rapist.

“I was so embarrassed,” he said. “I thought they would be man enough to apologize to my face.”

Brevard State Attorney Norm Wolfinger, a defense attorney when Dedge was convicted, wrote him a letter of apology shortly after his release but Dedge said it seemed insincere.

“I have nothing but best wishes for him and certainly have apologized over and over again,” Wolfinger said. “And, I have no problem telling him in person if he wants to talk to me. It has just never been sufficient in the past evidently.”

Dedge said one of his deepest fears after being freed was that some people would still think he was guilty.

“But I think most people feel [the state] did me wrong and that no amount of compensation could be enough,” he said.

Since his release, Dedge has flown throughout the country attending showings of the film After Innocence, a documentary featuring his fight for freedom and the battles of other inmates who were wrongly convicted. He even played tambourine with the rock band Pearl Jam during a benefit concert in Camden, N.J. The proceeds went to the Innocence Project, the New York-based legal clinic that battled for a decade to win his release.

He has been photographed dozens of times and has captured countless headlines. But he doesn’t look at the pictures or read the stories. And he still can’t believe he performed on stage at a crowded concert.

“I don’t really like crowds,” he said.

Despite all the attention, Dedge hasn’t changed much from the shy man who held his father’s hand during his first news conference.

He would like to travel more and some day buy a two-bedroom, two-bath house on a small lot.

“I just want something that’s not too much work, something I can pay off in a short period of time,” he said. “I want that security.”

Dedge won’t reveal exactly how much he receives in his monthly annuity checks.

“You got a lot of criminals out there,” he said. “I know. I’ve met some of the worst.”

The situation is incredibly sad and awful for Dedge, and doubtlessly a nightmare for the rape victim as well. Why prosecutors blocked the DNA testing that ultimately exonerated Dedge is hard to comprehend, and of course the story also reflects very badly on the police who were involved. But it needs to be told, and processed, so that the chances of repeating a horrific mistake like this are lessened. I worry that this story can be used to undermine the credibility of other rape victims. I wish I had some profound way to make sense of what happened. I don’t think it should be ignored, in any event.

–Ann Bartow

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